(Adds detail, background, shares, CEO comment)
LISBON, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Portuguese healthcare company Jose de Mello Saude has started a takeover battle for the indebted Espirito Santo family's hospitals business, offering 4.4 euros per share in an attempt to trump last month's bid by Mexico's Grupo Angeles.
Jose de Mello Saude said on Thursday that its bid for main rival Espirito Santo Saude (ES Saude) is 2.3 percent higher than the Mexican offer of 4.3 euros per share, which valued ES Saude at about 411 million euros ($531 million).
The competing bids are welcome news for the Espirito Santo family, whose main holding companies need to sell assets after filing for creditor protection in July under a mountain of debt.
The family's problems resulted in last month's state rescue of Banco Espirito Santo (BES), Portugal's largest listed lender. BES was split into a good bank, Novo Banco, and a bad bank to which all toxic assets related to the Espirito Santo Group were transferred.
ES Saude is still controlled by Espirito Santo Control, a top-level family holding that indrectly owned a majority stake in BES, but said that all its deposits at BES have been transferred to Novo Banco and it does not hold any debt related to the Espirito Santo group.
Jose de Mello Saude, which operates five hospitals among its 14 private health centres in Portugal and two hospitals under public-private partnership deals, said it wants to buy at least 50.01 percent of ES Saude and that its offer is backed by the Portuguese subsidiary of Spain's Banco Santander, Santander Totta.
CEO Salvador de Mello told reporters he is convinced that a takeover by his company "would not create a competition problem" because the two companies together will represent no more than 8 percent of Portugal's total healthcare market.
Shares in ES Saude, which operates 18 health centres in Portugal, including hospitals, clinics and care homes for the elderly, have risen almost 38 percent since 49 percent of the business was listed on the Lisbon bourse in February.
After taking a hit from the Espirito Santo family problems in July, the shares have been reignited by the Grupo Angeles offer. They edged up 0.3 percent on Thursday to 4.4 euros before being suspended pending the rival bid announcement.
On resumption of trading after Jose de Mello Saude's announcement, the ES Saude shares rose 4.6 percent to 4.59 euros by 1040 GMT.
The board of ES Saude had previously described the Mexican offer as "acceptable", but added that it "may not reflect all the control premium potential".
One of the board members representing one of Espirito Santo family holding companies - Rioforte - noted, however, that since the holding is under creditor protection, the Luxembourg court in charge of the process must also deliver its opinion on the bid. Judges are expected to present a report next month. (1 US dollar = 0.7741 euro) (Reporting By Andrei Khalip, Daniel Alvarenga and Axel Bugge; Editing by David Goodman)